Alternation (linguistics)

In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.

Alternations provide linguists with data that allow them to determine the allophones and allomorphs of a language's phonemes and morphemes and to develop analyses determining the distribution of those allophones and allomorphs.

Phonologically conditioned alternationEdit

An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the English plural marker commonly spelled s or es.[1] This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /ᵻz/,[note 1] depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  1. If the preceding sound is a sibilant consonant (one of /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/), or an affricate (one of /tʃ/, /dʒ/), the plural marker takes the form /ᵻz/. Examples:
    • mass /ˈmæs/, plural masses /ˈmæsᵻz/
    • fez /ˈfɛz/, plural fezzes /ˈfɛzᵻz/
    • mesh /ˈmɛʃ/, plural meshes /ˈmɛʃᵻz/
    • mirage /mɪˈrɑːʒ/, plural mirages /mɪˈrɑːʒᵻz/
    • church /ˈtʃɜːrtʃ/, plural churches /ˈtʃɜːrtʃᵻz/
    • bridge /ˈbrɪdʒ/, plural bridges /ˈbrɪdʒᵻz/
  2. Otherwise, if the preceding sound is voiceless, the plural marker takes the likewise voiceless form /s/. Examples:
    • mop /ˈmɒp/, plural mops /ˈmɒps/
    • mat /ˈmæt/, plural mats /ˈmæts/
    • pack /ˈpæk/, plural packs /ˈpæks/
    • cough /ˈkɒf/, plural coughs /ˈkɒfs/
    • myth /ˈmɪθ/, plural myths /ˈmɪθs/
  3. Otherwise, the preceding sound is voiced, and the plural marker takes the likewise voiced form /z/.
    • dog /ˈdɒɡ/, plural dogs /ˈdɒɡz/
    • glove /ˈɡlʌv/, plural gloves /ˈɡlʌvz/
    • ram /ˈræm/, plural rams /ˈræmz/
    • doll /ˈdɒl/, plural dolls /ˈdɒlz/
    • toe /ˈtoʊ/, plural toes /ˈtoʊz/

Alternation related to meaningEdit

Morphologically conditioned alternationEdit

French has an example of morphologically conditioned alternation. The feminine form of many adjectives ends in a consonant sound that is missing in the masculine form. In spelling, the feminine ends in a silent e, while the masculine ends in a silent consonant letter:[2]

  • masculine petit [pəti], feminine petite [pətit] "small"
  • masculine grand [ɡʁɑ̃], feminine grande [ɡʁɑ̃d] "tall"
  • masculine gros [ɡʁo], feminine grosse [ɡʁos] "big"
  • masculine joyeux [ʒwajø], feminine joyeuse [ʒwajøz] "merry"
  • masculine franc [fʁɑ̃], feminine franche [fʁɑ̃ʃ] "sincere"
  • masculine bon [bɔ̃], feminine bonne [bɔn] "good"

Syntactically conditioned alternationEdit

Syntactically conditioned alternations can be found in the Insular Celtic languages, where words undergo various initial consonant mutations depending on their syntactic position.[3] For example, in Irish, an adjective undergoes lenition after a feminine singular noun:

  • unmutated mór [oːɾˠ] "big", mutated in bean mhór [bʲan woːɾˠ] "a big woman"

In Welsh, a noun undergoes soft mutation when it is the direct object of a finite verb:

  • unmutated beic [bəik] "bike", mutated in Prynodd y ddynes feic [ˈprənoð ə ˈðənɛs vəik] "The woman bought a bike"

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The vowel of the inflectional suffix -⟨es⟩ may belong to the phoneme of either /ɪ/ or /ə/ depending on dialect, and ⟨⟩ is a shorthand for "either /ɪ/ or /ə/". This usage of the symbol is borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary.


  1. ^ Cohn, Abigail (2001). "Phonology". In Mark Aronoff; Janie Rees-Miller (eds.). The Handbook of Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 202–203. ISBN 0-631-20497-0.
  2. ^ Steriade, Donca (1999). "Lexical conservatism in French adjectival liaison" (PDF). In Jean-Marc Authier; Barbara E. Bullock; Lisa A. Reed (eds.). Formal Perspectives in Romance Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 243–70. ISBN 90-272-3691-7.
  3. ^ Green, Antony D. (2006). "The independence of phonology and morphology: The Celtic mutations" (PDF). Lingua. 116 (11): 1946–1985. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2004.09.002.